Primary Colors

In the fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Zito, assigned each of us a candidate to research for a class-wide recreation of the primary election. I forget who won the class-wide primary, but I think I was the only person to write in that year’s Libertarian candidate, Andre Marrou, because that’s who Dad said he would vote for.

What other fourth-grade classes did in 1992, I can’t say. But it was an early introduction for me not only to politics, but to how integral the political experience is to New Hampshire.

Bedford Town Hall, 12/2007

Voters fill a church in Bedford to meet a candidate. My grandparents are somewhere in the crowd.

This is the sort of thing that you don’t notice when you grow up in it. We always saw the signs, heard the commercials, got dragged along to the polls. My dad was a talk-radio listener and so politics were always fodder for discussion. That said, I was never a political junkie, just someone who recognized the importance of politics in a small state that proudly touted its first-in-the-nation status every four years.

But it’s one thing to sit back and watch. It’s another thing to get involved. And one of the best things I ever did was to get involved with a campaign leading into the 2008 Primary. That’s what this story is all about. It’s not an adventure for everyone, and I’m not sure it’s the adventure I’d choose now. But it was the ride of a lifetime when I did it, and I’m forever thankful for that experience.

It happened entirely by accident. It was July 2007. I’d taken a day off, and decided to go to a Manchester Young Professionals Network event at the terrace bar they had just opened behind the Hilton Garden Inn, overlooking the Fisher Cats ballpark. Not being a regular at MYPN mixers, I wandered for a bit, looking for some folks with an open conversation, when I found some, a guy and a girl about my age sporting t-shirts for one of the Presidential candidates.

I didn’t have a horse in the race yet, but I knew of their candidate of choice, and so we started talking. Somehow, they convinced me to join them for a campaign event the next week at their headquarters. And so, a week later, I found myself climbing the steps to the third floor of one of the brick mill buildings lining the Merrimack, the ones where my grandparents worked in their younger years, the ones that put Manchester on the map. The suite was a juxtaposition of 1800s mill architecture and modern sheetrock and interior framing, with the vestiges of the last tenant’s haphazard design tendencies. I had no idea it would soon be a second home.

The event – a movie and social sort of thing – was fun, and I left with the feeling that this could be my candidate too, so to speak. I stayed in touch with the campaign’s volunteer coordinator through the summer, partly to see what was going on and partly in hopes of maybe picking up a new friendship along the way. For whatever reason, it was mid-September before I attended another campaign event, this one a “town hall” meeting in Derry. For a couple hours, the candidate held court theatre-in-the-round style, saying a few words before taking questions from supporters, detractors and those on the fence alike. After the meeting, I wandered over to the volunteer coordinator and I think that’s when I asked, “What else can I do?”

I was twenty-six, single, working hard with few social outlets, recently settled into an apartment. My best friend lived in Virginia at the time, and my roommate was torn between traveling for work and coaching a robotics team. I had all the free time in the world. I needed a social outlet. And so I found myself at campaign headquarters a couple nights a week, getting a crash course in “get-out-the-vote” (that’s GOTV, for the uninitiated) activities.

Meet and Greet Session, November 2007

This is the level of political campaigning NH residents expect: meeting the candidates one on one, face to face.

Those two nights a week, I started planted in front of a phone, script and call list in hand, with a couple other volunteers. I’d never worked a phone bank before, but those early calls were a nice icebreaker. We were inviting people to town hall meetings, so we had something more than a survey to offer, and most people were pretty gracious.

One night, the staffers closed HQ to work a town-hall meeting, so I drove out to Amherst to see what I could do there. Right before our candidate took the stage, I was asked if I would mind holding one of the crowd microphones. When the candidate would identify someone in the crowd with a question, I’d rush over with a mic, let them ask their question and fade into the background. Some of the staffers openly disliked running around with the mic, so when I went to town halls, I had my role (aside from the usual setup, check-in and teardown).

Fall inched along and two nights a week grew to include Saturdays, and maybe another night or two depending on my (quiet) social life. Our candidate was gaining in the polls, and that meant more events in the state. One Saturday in November, I was asked to join some volunteers and media folks on a bus trip with our candidate to hit a couple campaign stops around Manchester. The following Sunday, I drove to meet staffers at two town halls in New London and Rindge, one of which was televised. I wasn’t just tied to the phone bank anymore; I was touring the state, too…well, within reason.

erinsphone

The casualties of campaigning: one volunteer-staffer from NYC had taped her broken phone back together to last through the primary.

I was still a volunteer, with a day job and a fate not tied to our success or failure. But at campaign HQ, I was trusted enough by the staffers that I could almost say I was an assistant to the volunteer coordinator. She could focus on the influx of out-of-state volunteers who would be arriving to help for the push to the primary, while I took care of the office routine, running the phone bank, running the occasional errand for the staffers, taking groups out for organized sign waves. I was at HQ every night of the week now, plus weekends, minus real-life obligations. In the mornings before work, I’d get in a half-hour at a nearby sign wave. It was all-consuming, yet tremendously rewarding.

Sign Wave, 12/24/07

Sign waves are a key part of visibility, especially on Christmas Eve in front of a mall.

The week after Christmas brought the volunteers, folks who traveled from Rhode Island and Maryland and Texas and California on their own dime to work on the campaign. Many of them took roles as volunteer-staffers, staffing remote phone banks and managing their own teams of volunteers for phone banking and sign-waving. Friendships (and friendly rivalries) were forged quickly.

With the primary only a couple weeks away, we were in overdrive. The call centers were humming along, people were out walking door-to-door in the frigid January air (and snow), we had teams at drive-time sign waves daily, and our candidate was in town for good, making appearances and doing last-minute town halls across the state. If we weren’t sleeping (or, in my case, working), we were campaigning. And we were loving every minute of it. I took a vacation day for the Tuesday of the primary. Win or lose, I’d been a part of this frenzy and I wasn’t going to miss the moment we’d all worked for.

lastdaycalls

Ground Zero on Primary Day 2008. Two of our volunteer-staffers update call tallies as the phone banks work in the background.

And so it all came down to this one Tuesday in January. From sunup to sundown (except for an early-morning visit to the polls myself), I was in the main room of headquarters with my fellow volunteer-staffers, monitoring the main phone bank. I had a new job: with a phone at one hand and my PowerBook at the other, I was connecting a team of 7 or 8 volunteers with people who needed a ride to the polls. (I dispatch trucks for a living, so it was only natural that I’d take a day off from work…to work.) Volunteer teams were rotating between walking neighborhoods and making calls, other teams were reporting in from poll-standing and sign waves, plus we had periodic visits from news crews and other journalists (I got interviewed by some McGill students after giving them a quick HQ tour). It was pedal-to-the-metal from start to finish, even as the landlines blinked off with only a few minutes to go before polls closed and we switched over to cell phones, not because the few calls we could make would be that productive, but because none of us wanted to give in so easily. We campaigned until the polls closed, we cheered and thanked the volunteers and staffers for making this possible, and then headed to what we’d termed a Victory Party, hoping it would be exactly that.

It was.

The story doesn’t really end there. For the next month I lingered on, one of a few volunteers helping the staffers as they prepped for Super Tuesday, the day of many primaries in early February. After that, there was little for volunteers to do in New Hampshire, and things went dormant as the staffers got deployed to new positions as state coordinators or staffers in Washington, DC. I came back to headquarters sometime in mid-summer, after the conventions were over. There were a few familiar faces, but a lot of new staffers, many sent from party headquarters, and a few new strategies at play. We were a small state, and so we were no longer The Battleground.

And so, in a way, my story can end there. The months leading up to the general election brought their own experiences and memories and friendships, and I’m just as thankful for those. But they also brought a lesson that I only really recognized in hindsight. In New Hampshire, we reap the benefits of being the first state to host a primary election, and being a small enough state where campaigning matters. As one of fifty states vying for votes in the electoral system, we were a blip on the radar. As the only game in town, and a compact one at that, we get the full focus of each candidate. If we choose to, as voters, we can get to know our candidates up close and personal, in a way that many voters could never even imagine. I saw people shaking his hand at a campaign visit, asking questions or getting autographs and photos after a town hall meeting. Many times, I was within a handshake’s distance of him, listening to him candidly answer a reporter on his tour bus. I could have volunteered anywhere, but the experience I got was one I could only get here.

The political world is better experienced from the front row than from the nosebleeds, but here in New Hampshire, we have the ultimate backstage pass.

That was eight years ago. Would I do it again at thirty-four, engaged, still a workaholic and with a more active social circle than I had then? I’m not sure I would. Yes, I could show up and make phone calls for a couple hours. But knowing myself, I think that hour or two phone-banking would create an itch to stay a little longer here, a little longer there, until I was immersed as much as I was back then. That’s not an option now, but I’m so glad it was an option then.

But I would tell the younger me to do it again. I suppose that’s the greater takeaway from my adventure (and this part of the lesson need not be strictly political, but I’m striving for consistency here). If something intrigues you, get involved. Don’t be concerned that you’re an outsider right now. Don’t be concerned when people tell you you’re tilting at windmills. Just take the plunge and see where it takes you. The 2016 Primary is next week. It may be a bit late to dive in headfirst at this point. But it’s never too late to get involved at all. Best of all, you never know where it might lead, or who you might meet…or where you might go.

During the primary race, our volunteer coordinator once asked me, “So aren’t you glad you went to that Young Professionals thing in July?” At the time, it was easy to say yes. Eight years later, I find it much easier to mean it.

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